This week, I was in Beijing and then Shanghai, wandering around in the cities, visiting art shows, pretending to work in coffee shops, consuming Chinese social media, not eating. As I busied myself with doing nothing, I thought about two things.
The "student" mindset
When does what I make become something more than a "student work?"
About two weeks ago, I found out that the paper I wrote for my research internship this summer was accepted for an anthology. But on top of that, they said they'd love to include it in an academic journal and asked me if I wanted to participate in this peer review process.
When I completed my rough draft a month ago, I felt deeply inadequate with what I was attempting to research on and write about. It was an ambitious project in hindsight: I had to read in several disciplines, most of which I wasn't familiar with at all, and develop my own theory. I didn't have any reference to measure my theory's legitimacy (how "on the right track" I was) because I couldn't, and still haven't, found any author writing about exactly what I was attempting to write about. My Gnomon application also diverted a lot of my time away from this research. I crammed writing the draft into two weekends just like I would've done for a final at school. And the result also felt like a final paper that I could have written for a class and nothing more.
And some people out there thought it was worthy for a peer reviewed journal!
I mean, it isn't a super big journal, but to publish one's individual research in an academic journal was definitely not something I thought a college student could do. I came into the research internship imagining to just help with my advisor's research, to do whatever he'd ask me to do, and it was my advisor who encouraged me to consider my "college freshman + art & design student" identity to be more valuable than I had believed in.
This got me thinking: what else could a college student do outside of taking classes, writing papers or doing projects for school, volunteering at big events, interning for big or small companies, or helping a professor with their research?
If I want to make a documentary, I now realized, I don't have to start with taking classes at school, from Documentary I to Documentary II, and assume I'm only supposed to make relatively short films. Why can't I just make one, learn as the project goes, and submit it to legit film festivals? Why do I have to trap myself within the mental framework of a "student" and take everything I produce as a sketch, a rough draft, a practice for what I will make post graduation? The concept of graduating from a college doesn't in itself level up my ability from an amateur to a professional, it's the time and effort I put into honing my skills and creating. (Of course I am always a "student" as long as I am curious about something, but my point is that probably our chance of producing something socially valuable comes before our external student status ends)
Actually, a sophomore at UPenn won an Oscar for her short documentary earlier this year. And probably more people than I can imagine have already freed themselves of that "student" mindset at an early age and, while being a student somewhere, are contributing meaningfully to the society (as opposed to, say, writing essays just for a professor to grade on for a class)
It's certainly great to discover people like that UPenn student, to know that something I wouldn't dare to think about is actually possible. But now I'm afraid that even finding archetypes like her is too limiting. If I only think I could maybe do something after I learn someone else has done it already, I can never do something that no one has done. (I was only convinced to submit to the anthology after I'd found that a college student had published in its last issue.) So how can I live my life and make unique choices confidently without a specific collection of archetypes? I want to find that out.
All that being said, I still believe that there's a lot I have to learn and think about regarding the topic I researched on this summer. But I'm recognizing that I don't have to make my work perfect and mature before I get it out there for other people to see and critique. There probably is never a point when I know "enough" about something, if I were to be truly curious about that subject. So I may as well share what I've learned and done with other people as I go, and see what different people have to say about my work!
When I went to art shows in Beijing and Shanghai recently, I sometimes saw a certain irony in the art museums but didn't know what to do after recognizing this irony. The visitors were treating the art in a way that was exactly what the artists were critiquing with the art, as if they didn't get the apparent message. To be more precise, a lot of the art I saw in China in the past two weeks was about the phenomenon or consequence of excessive engagement with entertainment. Yet the visitors often treated these art as another simply visually appealing object worthy of a background for a few pictures to be posted on social media. They were taking photos of themselves in front of or pretending to engage with the art that was critiquing exactly what they were doing.
Seeing that happen in front of me, I had to wonder how many of the visitors knew what they were doing: maybe some of them were taking photos to make fun of themselves, like I might have done if I didn't go by myself. I'm not exactly sure.
A similar feeling of pointlessness that I felt almost three years ago came back to me. I was volunteering at a pretty famous art museum in Beijing, and for a few days I just had to sit at a chair in one of the bigger exhibition rooms for six hours straight, to make sure no one damaged any art. While other rooms had only video art, my room was an aesthetically pleasing installation with many silver balloons (Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds) I watched visitors briefly walking through the other rooms within a few minutes total and making their stop at the silver balloons for maybe twenty minutes taking pictures. It felt as if the entire show was there in vain, with barely anyone caring to truly experience the art in any meaningful way. This, along with my experience at Art Basel Miami (which, I learned in a documentary last year, was apparently the most notorious one out of all major art fairs) the same month, made the then 18-year-old me rather cynical about what I loved to make.
I thought I had grown out of my past existential crisis (that art, what I feel I'm most talented in, is fundamentally inefficient in creating positive impact in societies—where I find values in anything I do) I thought that I had accepted fine art's limit, and I started to imagine myself doing both fine art and communication art or design, to accomplish the different aspects of what I want to accomplish in different realms. But apparently, I'm still intuitively looking for an answer to integrate everything into one. I'm still not satisfied with how fine art is received today. I'm still looking for ways to stylize my art (which is more so my imagination of the art I hope to make in the near future) so that it grabs people aesthetically while containing certain unique philosophical depth. But then I'd think to myself: what could happen if people recognized what the art was critiquing? Does that really make any difference? These questions then immediately lead to the unanswerable question of what the fine art's responsibility, if we assume it has one, to the society is. Maybe important questions don't get solved and will always come back to you at different points in life, just like the question of art's use.